Ah! Direct Rule is in the news again.Nobody likes to talk about it too much, of course.The politicians at Westminster would rather hold their own feet to the fire than start that kind of thing up again, so they are hoping beyond hope that those Norneverlanders will cobble together some sort of compromise and take the place off their hands again.
It’s been one thing after another for a hundred years or so.First the unionists didn’t want Home Rule in Ireland at all and then they accepted it when Ireland was divided up.The British hoped that it might keep those pesky Irish happy to give them two sorts of self -ruled Dominions in Dublin and Belfast, but the Irish nationalists decided to set up a republic ruled from Dublin and the Irish unionists ,who previously would have no truck with home rule at all , grabbed it with both hands when they could have their own especially weighted little statelet, ruled from Belfast.
The problem seemed solved ,except that fifty years later the British had to ride in and take back control from the unionists. The unionists seemingly couldn’t really manage to run the place without them in the end. So that was the end of unionism having the place to themselves.They’d made a bit of a mess of things , putting it kindly , and Mother England was left to clean up their mess.The Official Unionist Party had a good majority back then and starting initially with James Craig, simply admitting that his government was ‘a Protestant government for a Protestant people’ ,as his template , all the later governments’ actions stemmed from a wish to preserve that simple unionist vision and status quo .It was easy enough to achieve this by abolishing proportional representation for elections, gerrymandering whenever they could , and discriminating in the allocation of housing and jobs.As with most great ideas , It was a simple idea and it worked for many years, simply because it was allowed to fester away, untended by any outside influence ,but it was bound to fail eventually ,as it did when there was a desire for the implementation of civil rights and equality for all, in the 1960s.
Through all of that mad, lost experiment , the British government tried their utmost to push Ireland away with as long a pole as was possible .In political terms they wanted no more to do with this complicated puzzle , but finding no alternative , refused to interfere in this odd Northern Ireland and its affairs.It was laid down when they set the new state up and it was neatly convenient for them.The very last thing they foresaw was to be dragged back in to rule the place by Direct Rule, but that was exactly what they had to do in 1972.It all fell apart within a mere four years.
There were a few things that brought about the situation they now found themselves in but it was really education that started it off.Young educated nationalists focused on the the misuse of power by unionism and brought their demonstrations onto the streets.Unionism didn’t understand how to compromise because they never had to.Loyalist and republican violence increased and internment without trial was introduced. The police and British forces failed to police the situation in a fair manner and Nationalist MPs lost all faith in the institutions and boycotted Stormont. Violence began to break out exponentially like a rapidly -growing cancer.In retrospect , it makes perfect sense.
The British Government quickly cobbled together an Act to take back control from unionism.They took the 1949 Ireland Act which stated :
“…..no change to Northern Ireland’s status could be made ‘without the consent of the Parliament of Northern Ireland’….”
..and changed it to :
….”It is hereby declared that Northern Ireland remains part of Her Majesty’s dominions and of the United Kingdom, and it is hereby affirmed that in no event will Northern Ireland or any part of it cease to be part of Her Majesty’s dominions and of the United Kingdom without the consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll held for the purposes of this section in accordance with Schedule 1 to this Act.”
This new act assumed the fact of the discredited unionist government and reintegrated Northern Ireland back into the United Kingdom and made the possible reunification of Ireland dependent on the majority of people in Northern Ireland voting for such a move.
Direct Rule was introduced in March 1972xper by PM Edward Heath and the Executive and the Assembly were dissolved, supposedly temporarily, but in actual fact it ran for nearly forty years , ending only in 1998. We had experienced Direct Rule for almost as long as we’d had that unique ,self-governing little unionist state.
Unionists went apoplectic at this news, of course.They felt betrayed by Britain , failing to understand or ackowledge their part in the collapse at all and this led to the rise of loyalist organisations such as the(Ulster Defence Army(UDA), the revived Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF )and the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF). It has to be said that these paramilitary organisations were openly encouraged by mainstream unionism .Hardline Nationalists and Republicans didn’t like the idea of Direct Rule from Westminster either, treating it as a renewed act of aggression by an outside power. Their response came in the shape of the newProvisional Irish Republican Army ( PIRA) and the Irish Nation Liberation Army (INLA ).Many others of a less radical bent did not support this violent response and thought that at least if power was removed from unionism , a slightly fairer society might be possible because unionism certainly didn’t want to change on their own and couldn’t be trusted to rule fairly on their own ,either.These perceptions simply kept the fires burning on both sides of the equation , so the British couldn’t ignore it even though they would have preferred to. From that point any policy decisions relating to Northern Ireland would be made in London and handed down by Orders in Council. The people of Northern Ireland would continue to be represented by their elected members of the British parliament, but they would no longer have their own Assembly or Executive government.
At that time in 1972 , many in the British government saw Direct Rule as a last resort and conceived that it might only be in place for as much as twelve months.This was something like the wistful premonition that World War One would be over by Christmas .That war lasted for four years, while Direct Rule almost made the 40 year mark, before ending after 37 years.
Since the Belfast agreement on Good Friday , which officially ended the conflict and after which Direct Rule was ended ,we have enjoyed almost twenty years again at attempting to rule ourselves, together, but once again we’ve managed to get it messed up , ending in a series of scandals , acrimony and agreements not honoured . This time the old unionist huge majority is a thing of ancient history and again we have no working local government of our own. Many are so fed up with the process that they are prepared to accept a form of Direct Rule for a while ,but many are not prepared to accept this at all.The British Government certainly do not want it again, especially with all the other problems they are already having with the Scottish push for independence and the complications of leaving the EU. In all of this , the Irish and especially those awkward Irish in the north, are probably their most unstable players.
Direct Rule will actually benefit no -one here , other than the satisfaction of removing the wages from some stunningly unlovely overpaid politicians , some of whom we’d probably love to hear less from. It’s a fact that unionism never properly wanted this latest shared local government to work in any feasible way anyway ,because many unionists have said so , therefore it might have to be a nebulous form of Joint-Rule between Westminster and Dublin until such time as Nationalism simply has the necessary votes for a referendum on the border and the possibility of a voted -for United Ireland. The form that a New Ireland might take in relation to the neighbouring countries such as England, Scotland and Wales might break new ground.
It is possible that in the meantime Westminster might now want to spread this heavy load and share it with its neighbours in Dublin, for some time .The question might really be how to sell it to a decreasing and ever -more paranoid and irrational unionism ,which hasn’t yet begun to think about a series of possible alternative futures for themselves which err from their original game-plan.